Design in Tech Report 2017

A must-read zeitgeist if you work in tech, no matter your role.

Design trends revolutionizing the entrepreneurial and corporate ecosystems in tech. Related M&A activity, new patterns in creativity × business, and the rise of computational design.

View the full video + slides and an executive summary on LinkedIn of the presentation led by my colleague John Maeda, Automattic’s Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion.

Key takeaway: “Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results.”

 

I'm Joining Automattic

These last few months I’ve been working, and not writing. I’ve been busy launching new sites, helping clients, and finding new opportunities. One such opportunity came in January.

Since starting simpledream web studio I’ve told people often that I’d like to be a freelancer for the rest of my career. I love working from anywhere—in the RV, co-working at Spoke6, in my home office.

That said, I have kept an eye on a few companies I’d love to work for: companies dedicated to open source software, that allow for location-independent employees, and have a great reputation in the industry. Automattic ranked high on that short list. When Matt Mullenweg contacted me about working with Automattic, I jumped at the chance.

I’m proud to announce that they’ve offered me a full-time position, and I’ve accepted it. I feel I’ve found a perfect match with the fine folks driving WordPress.org, WordPress.com, BuddyPress, Gravatar, Akismet, IntenseDebate, PollDaddy, and many other great projects.

Why would I love working for Automattic? It’s a distributed company: I can work from anywhere. They work on exciting, innovative projects. They are a prominent and active member of the open source community, and I want to be involved in that. There’s room for me to learn and grow. My day-to-day schedule won’t change much—I’ll be working a similar schedule and setting my own hours.

I’m stoked about my position as “Theme Wrangler” with Automattic. I’ll be working on web design and development projects, mostly revolving around themes and WordPress.com. I’m sure I’ll also use my Spanish and French skills since people all around the world use Automattic products.

If you want to learn more about Automattic, explore Automattic.com. And if you’re looking for an engaging job with smart people, check out the Jobs page and How We Work.

What’s going to happen to simpledream?

It’s been a great run! Five successful years managing my own business is easily one of my best and most fulfilling accomplishments. I learned, grew, and prospered as a consultant and contractor. The lifestyle I dreamed of—traveling around the US with my wife and working remotely–became a reality. The business, simpledream web studio, enabled that to happen.

I’m closing down the business soon. I’ll be helping to migrate my clients to new companies, passing them on to the capable hands of other web designers and developers.

I’ll be keeping the simpledream name, domain, and site alive as part of my personal brand. I plan to continue posting here about web design and development, web standards, and—of course—cool stuff going on with WordPress themes.

Stay tuned!

Having Customers Is Good, Too

Jared Spool on copying Amazon:

For a lot of products, such as alarm clocks, you’re only going to write a review if you have a negative experience. How does Amazon get people to write reviews? Most people don’t leave reviews. About 0.7% of people who buy something leave a review. But because Amazon has such a huge amount of customers, that equates to quite a lot. So the next time someone says, we should have reviews; that works really well for Amazon, you can respond with sure, we should have customers too; that works really well for Amazon.

It’s easy to build a product that copies other products, or run a business that mimics how another company does business. But do you add features just because the other product or company does it, or because you have customers that would use and love that feature?

The new feature may be good—it might be even be awesome—but having customers is good, too. Does your product or business attract and hold on to passionate customers?

(Via Adactio: Journal—Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon.)

Business Priority: Get Paid on Time

free pdf download

I can’t remember where I came across Howard Mann’s Your Business Brickyard (free PDF), but this small book is chock full of great business tips. The focus is on getting back to the basics of making business fun and exciting.

One topic covered is “getting paid on time” — this is a big deal for me as a freelancer working with many different clients.
Mann first tells businesses why they should pay their vendors on time (page 39):

“No matter how good a relationship is with your vendors, nothing will break it faster than you being a lousy payer… Every day you don’t pay that bill, you add stress to another business owner’s life and to his or her business.”

This is extremely important as a business owner who hires freelancers and contractors: paying on time engenders a positive working relationship, and makes you a very valuable client. People will want to go the extra mile for you.

For the freelancer, getting paid quickly makes all the difference to providing cash flow, trust in your client, and the motivation to give 100% to the client’s work. I have had both quick-paying clients as well as pull-your-teeth-out-with-pliers slow-paying clients. It is easy to say I’d much rather work for the client that pays on time.

Mann also urges the payee to not put up with late payments (page 51):

“When you make an integrity-compromising concession to a client or tolerate bad behavior or poor payment patterns, you dishonor your purpose, your people, your business, and yourself.”

Set clear expectations of how and when you want to be paid, then be persistent in collecting the money. If you feel that you are constantly hunting down the payments, it is probably time to fire the client and find someone else who values you enough to pay you on time.

Don't Work on Spec

From the Important Topics in Running a Web Design Business Dept. I’d like to share a recent conversation with a colleague about whether or not it’s a good practice to include mockups in a possibly unpaid bid for a project. I’m posting it here for reference and to continue the conversation.

Colleague: I’ve seen on Twitter… times where you said that you’d finished a mockup for a client. And by that, I’m assuming you mean a mockup of a website that you’re proposing to build for them…

Lance: My situation might be different than other web professionals in that I generally work with the same clients over and over (my last “new” client was Summit Hut in September 2007). So, the mockups I do now are for paid projects that have budgets and buy-in from clients. And, these projects aren’t typically new websites; although in one case that I talked about on Twitter the mockups I presented were for a complete overhaul of a web application’s user interface.

In the “real world” of trying to land gigs or client projects, mockups and prototypes can play a part, but be very careful when people ask for that type of work without pay.

If that’s the case, when you do your mockups, do you just do straight HTML (so the look is there, but not the functionality), build it in Photoshop (or something similar) or something else?

As far as the “how” of mockups, I almost always jump from paper sketches and basic ideas into HTML and CSS. That is my strength, and I am very fast from concept to working website, so it’s my best use of time and energy. I use Photoshop and Illustrator for design elements such as backgrounds, buttons, and icons with an occasional—but rare—entire mockup in Photoshop that I then flatten as a PNG and use as a mockup or starting point for coding.

Skipping Photoshop doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be a timesaver if you are more comfortable working with other tools. Check out Why we skip Photoshop, a great take on this by 37signals. Most “graphic” web designers take offense to this type of approach, since they say that those kinds of designs tend to look alike in their boxiness, and that you are constrained by CSS basics, etc. I don’t agree—I think creative and good design work can happen in non-visual tools. Overall, I think you should do your work where it is fastest and more efficient for you; for me that is coding HTML/CSS and tweaking the display right in the browser, not in an image editor.

The big advantage for me for moving from paper and ideas directly to code is that I can get a working demo up faster and into my clients’ hands that much quicker.

And also, if you’re doing a proposal for a client (bidding on a project and/or expanding upon a bid you already sent), do you generally give them a mockup of what you’re proposing and do you charge for your time to build that mockup and the bid?

My advice, and the standard industry practice, is to never do work “on spec,” meaning those design mockups should never be for free. If you get client buy-in and establish the mockup and design process as part of your workflow, you won’t get bit by people backing out after you sink time and energy into it. There are those occasional clients who want ideas for free, and they will use you to that end. Of course, those folks might be few and far between, but be aware that they are asking you to do unpaid work.

There is a lot online about this already, so I won’t harp on it too much. From the master Zeldman himself, read Don’t design on spec. For a perspective from a respected graphic web designer, Veerle Pieters, I recommend Free of charge please!, and there is even an entire website dedicated to the topic: NO!SPEC. Besides reading what other web professionals have to say, I’d also recommend picking up a copy of Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines for some great advice and case studies (Amazon).

If a client asks for work up-front with no payment, my tendency is to run like the wind! If you feel they are a worthwhile client, and you really want to work for them, spend some time educating them on your workflow and process, and explain why the mockup and design iteration phase is an important part of the project cost and budget. That education will pay off many times over, giving more value to all the parts of your web design work, not just the “expert” parts such as coding and testing.

For example, in my typical web design project process I have clients read and sign off on each step, including brainstorming, planning, content organization, and design mockups. Giving each stage in the process a monetary value can help you feel good about spending time to get things right, and gives the client a reason for all the charges you bill them (or all the line items in an estimate beforehand).

This is a very important topic—if you are a freelancer it would do you good to define your stance and “official policy” on spec work. Let’s educate ourselves, our colleagues, and our clients on why spec work is unprofessional, and share this conversation with others.

Online Marketing Summit, Seattle

I attended the Online Marketing Summit, Seattle on August 7th, 2008. OMS is geared towards marketing professionals looking to improve their skills and network with their peers. The summit was well worth the time. Kudos to Aaron Kahlow, his staff, and the speakers for a focused, relevant conference.

Conference themes included social media, user-generated content, and user-centered design. The most consistent message I heard during the day is that marketing is about improving communication, “It’s about people, not technology”.

The content was a great mix of theoretical discussion, “What are the leading minds in marketing thinking about?” and practical advice, “What can I do today to improve my communications?” The best example of the latter, in my opinion, came from the talk titled “Email Marketing Boot Camp” by Joe Colopy. I’ll be posting my notes from that talk in a later post.

Below I’ll share the thoughts and notes I jotted down throughout the day that were particularly pertinent to my web design business. There were many other ideas presented, but this is what stuck with me.

Usability

If marketing is about communication, usability is about making your communications easy to use.

Usability is achieved by adapting the system to the person, not by building a system that requires the person to adapt and learn it. Usability is 80% information architecture (IA): labels, categories, and good organization. Good IA bridges the gap between visual display and content—in other words, between the “user” and the “system.”

Start with conventions of human behavior (don’t reinvent the wheel), then define your audience-specific elements. What is a convention, you ask? If over 50% of people are doing something a certain way, it is considered a convention. Unconventional functionality will require lots of testing.

Be sure to keep in mind universal cognitive behaviors: images trump text, group like items together (good organization is a big deal), and remember that humans scan big to small, dark to light, irregular to regular, and saturated to less saturated.

Write well: people scan websites—they don’t read. Use headings, put the conclusion/summary at the top, and be concise. Put elements in conventional places: home link at the top left, help and shopping cart at the top right, and navigation along top or sides (on the left is the most common).

Relevant Ads

Display ads when it is opportune to do so. “Pull, not push,” meaning you should wait to hear what a person wants before you send ads their way. After your customer accomplishes a goal on your website, you can then provide relevant ads to them. Don’t display ads that aren’t appropriate to the task at hand. If it doesn’t relate, it will be (1) ignored or (2) be very annoying.

Being relevant means solving a problem people don’t even know they have. For example, Amazon suggests items that other people purchased; this type of relevancy can be very powerful.

If your ads are relevant, they can actually boost your customer’s trust in your communications.

Social Media and User-Generated Content

Danielle Ferguson, speaking at the conference, said, “User-generated content means conversations are happening between you and your customers as well as conversations between your customers without your intervention.”

These customer conversations (without your intervention) can have positive side effects: it can drive up search engine rankings, provide company transparency, and engender loyalty and trust.

The big trends in social media marketing include video, mobile, and conversation-builders like blogs and forums. Several of the sessions were about social media specifically (which I did not attend), but every single session I attended mentioned it at least once.

Marketing With Limited Resources

Choose low-hanging fruit to get immediate results:

  1. Define your goal: what action do you want people to take?
  2. Make priorities, tackle the highest first, and say no to the rest.
  3. Digital marketing can be done low-cost (website, blogs and other social media).
  4. Use free tools like Google’s Website Optimizer to perform basic tests for your campaigns and landing pages.

Buzzwords and Industry Jargon

I am not immersed in the marketing industry, so it was interesting to hear industry jargon and accronyms, some of which I knew and some of which were firsts for me. Here are several of oft-mentioned terms: B2B (business to business), B2C (business to consumer), SMB (small- and medium- businesses), ERP (enterprise resource planning), ECM (enterprise content management), “user gen” (short for user-generated content), and CRM (customer relationship management).

Thanksfully, most presenters did a great job of staying away from the hype and buzzwords such as “leverage”, “Web 2.0”, and “synergy.” Overall the message was: if you communicate your brand and products clearly, meet your customers’ needs, and maintain a trusting relationship with your customers, you will be well on your way to success.

Note: I found about the conference through the Digital Web events feed.

Travel Internet Connection: EVDO vs. Satellite

To prepare for the transition to full-time RV living, I invested in a mobile satellite internet kit designed for RVers in early 2006. Until recently, this was my main internet connection.

I have found that the satellite system works great in most places, and generally provides a steady connection when in rural areas where no other connection is available. I don’t always use it; if an RV park or campground has WiFi available, I usually opt for that for general web browsing (I still use the satellite for secure web browsing and as a backup). The strength of the satellite system is its ability to capture a signal almost anywhere in the lower 48 states, and it has saved my bacon in some out-of-the-way places.

Satellite Issues

It isn’t perfect, though. In northern states I’ve visited (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, Oregon), the view angle for the satellite is very low, which combined with the abundance of trees and hills makes the satellite setup difficult or impossible. Even in a good location with a clear view of the southern sky, there is a seemingly endless list of possible issues with the satellite connection: solar flares, weather at the network centers, cloud cover, storms, rain, electrical interference from power lines or other WiFi signals… you get the idea. I’ve spent days agonizing over a trickle-speed connection while trying to get work done.

Since the satellite’s main strength, in my opinion, is its usefulness in out-of-the-way places, I didn’t consider going with a cellular data plan since I wanted more flexibility to truly “use it anywhere.” I’ve found, however, that my travels generally find me close to towns and cities—at least on work days. As much as I thought I’d be in the boonies, it hasn’t turn out to be the case.

Enter EVDO

So, I decided to take another look at cellular broadband, popularly called EVDO1, as an option. My hope was that the technology had advanced enough in the last two years to leave the satellite behind and transition to EVDO. This would mean three big things to me: fewer worries about where to park (trees, latitude, etc), smaller and cheaper equipment, and faster, more reliable service.

I read, researched, prodded, and poked. Several fellow RVers suggested checking out EVDO plans on Sprint and Verizon. Popular online RV forums are filled with success stories from RVers who are connect with EVDO. I also followed Alex King’s experiences with Sprint, which led me to EVDOinfo.com.

The resources and information at EVDOinfo.com helped tremendously, and I was pleased with the speed reports and the price points. Finally, I settled on a Sprint Mobile Broadband plan along with the Franklin U680 USB, a CradlePoint CTR500 router, and a Booster Antenna.

The system arrived, and I haven’t set up the satellite since. One big surprise for me: latency is not as much of an issue as I had expected. With the satellite connection, I’d experienced horrible latency when typing in remote shells, and using Skype or any SSL connection over HTTP had proven difficult and slow. In contrast, the Sprint EVDO connection is fast and responsive over a remote SSH connection, and secure web pages load quicker.

If you are an RVer, I’d recommend looking into an EVDO system. If you have a connection with cable or DSL, and rely heavily on it, I’d suggest an EVDO plan as a backup to your main connection. It also works great as a traveling WiFi connection if you are on the road a lot.

EVDO Resources

First, read a good introduction: Easy EVDO. See if your area is covered, first in the official coverage maps (Sprint, Verizon), then in the EVDO coverage maps submitted by users. Then, to start looking at hardware, go to the 3Gstore, a one-stop shop for all your EVDO needs, brought to you by the EVDOinfo folks.

Speeds are comparable to DSL when the EVDO connection is at its best. As a bonus, the connection has three different speed ranges (depending on your location), which is nice compared to a satellite system that is either on or off. When EVDO isn’t available, for example, but you are still within voice range, you can still surf the web and view emails, though at a much slower speed.

Here is how the Sprint speed ranges break down:

  • Best: EVDO-A provides 450–800kbps download with bursts to 3Mbps and 300–600kbps upload.
  • Next best: EVDO Rev-0 provides 400–700kbps download with bursts to 2Mbps and 50–100kbps upload.
  • Slowest: 1xRTT provides 50–100kbps download and upload (dialup speeds). This is available anywhere voice service exists.

To get the most out of an EVDO plan, you will want to be in the EVDO-A coverage area most of the time.

EVDO vs. Satellite

I have to say that the satellite connection I was using doesn’t stack up well against my new EVDO connection. One exception is the “use anywhere” situation, but as I mentioned above I don’t often find myself out of cellular range on work days.

Strengths as compared to satellite:

  1. Doesn’t need a clear view of southern sky.
  2. Faster setup time: no pointing or modem rebooting each time.
  3. Cheaper, lighter, and smaller hardware.
  4. The equipment is confined within the RV, meaning I have no exterior equipment to take down/up each time I move.
  5. Can be used anywhere (coffee shop, in the car) as long as the modem is powered. Or, the USB EVDO card can be used on just one computer to get access. This is a huge deal for frequent travelers that are constantly trying to find a WiFi connection.
  6. Can be used while moving (doesn’t need to be stationary like the satellite dish).
  7. Provides lower levels of service when EVDO isn’t available (slower, but I still have a connection).

Weaknesses as compared to satellite:

  1. Broadband coverage is only around populated areas. (But, both Sprint and Verizon’s coverage areas are expanding.)
  2. 5GB cap of usage per month. My satellite plan also has limits, but they are much higher, and based on daily usage, not monthly.
  3. Signal strength affects the speeds: the closer I am to the tower, the better.
  4. The USB modem’s onboard antenna isn’t very strong; I had to to purchase a booster antenna to guarantee service in all the places I visit.
  5. In reading the service agreement with Sprint, and viewing their marketing materials, the service doesn’t appear intended to be a full-time connection; instead it seems to be designed for as a backup to a regular connection (cable, DSL) or as a travel connection between office and home (for example).

1 EVDO is short for “Evolution Data Optimized.” Sprint calls their EVDO service “Mobile Broadband” and Verizon calls their EVDO service “BroadbandAccess.” Both refer to their lower-speed 1xRTT service as “NationalAccess.”

Update: I added links to the “official” coverage maps for Sprint and Verizon.